Opinion: Why ‘Indie’ Has Become A Bad Word

By Nathan Grayson on May 3rd, 2012 at 11:00 am.

Yes, this is a thing.

So EA has its own indie bundle now. Yes, I’m aware that hardly makes any sense. At the very least, each game is part of the EA Partners program, which means the devs do, in fact, own their IPs – not EA. That said, it’s all a bit silly, right? Especially in the past year or so, EA’s once again become synonymous with gaming’s fe-fi-fo-fumming, goose-that-lays-golden-eggs-milking corporate side. It is, to be frank, the near-comically polar opposite of the indie “scene.” Clearly, though, EA’s trying to evoke a certain reaction by co-opting that word. But that, in itself, strikes me as problematic, because gaming’s least gentle giant is right: “indie” has a connotation now, and it’s very much coloring the expectations of gamers and indie developers alike. To be a developer of independent games and to be “indie” are now two entirely different things.

Indie is cool. Indie is hip. Indie is smart, chic, and sexy. Indie isn’t pretty, but it gets the job done. Indie is down-to-earth, the work of tireless blue collar DIY craftsmanship. Indie is pretentious, a haven for over-inflated egos and introspection with all the depth of a sun-dried puddle. Indie is big on head-in-the-clouds dreaming, but it crashes and burns in terms of execution. Indie is mechanically sublime – not a wasted input or animation. Indie is the future. Indie is stuck in the past.

You probably noticed that most of the sentences in that paragraph were completely at odds with each other, and there’s a good reason for that: independent development’s swollen into a massive tidal wave of a movement, but its moving parts are hardly in sync. Independent developers of all shapes and sizes craft an equally diverse range of games. For instance, Lone Survivor is a game about zombies from an independent developer. But so is Left 4 Dead.

Oh, and here’s a fun one: Minecraft. It started off as a one-man show, a blocky, retro-chic “indie” poster child. Now, though, Mojang’s made up of nearly 30 people, and Notch hasn’t touched Minecraft in months. And then there are newly Kickstarter-empowered developers like Double Fine and inXile, who plan to bring triple-A polish and development procedures to projects on which they – and no one else – cracks the whip, for once.

There are, obviously, countless other examples I could provide here, but the point remains the same: the word “indie” has become effectively meaningless.

In essence, it’s a relic. Perhaps it held meaning once, but now it’s a rusty reminder of bygone times. Problem is, unlike most ancient objects, it’s far from six feet under. So basically, it’s the cursed reanimated mummy of the gaming world, poisoning expectations with its festering touch and probably going on to eventually get a spin-off starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. We use it constantly, and it’s created a plethora of negative, oftentimes limiting connotations.

Foremost, there are the cries of pretension. If you’re an indie developer, you must cry ones and zeroes and bleed chunky red pixels. Every action performed in your game – whether it’s reading bits of cryptic dialog or punching a man until a fully cooked chicken pops out – has to be some form of symbolism. You’ve got to be the next Braid, basically – even if you really, really don’t want to be. That goes double if you’re any sort of platformer. And, as a result, a handful of gamers will write off your game simply on the basis of “Pfft, I liked it better when it was called ‘Braid.’ What pretentious garbage” – all the while drowning out any protests to the contrary.

But it works both ways. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten about “indie” platformers with time-bending elements or similar puzzle elements, more or less with the implication that “you guys like this stuff, right? Right?!” Same goes for retro-inspired pixel art, minimalistic (and, as a result, oftentimes clumsily told) stories, and of course, indie-scene-related in-jokes. Don’t get me wrong: these things can be used to great effect in the right hands, but there’s an expanding train of me-toos, and it’s picking up far too much steam.

And yet, for every “indie” detractor, there’s an overzealous holier-than-thou indie ultra-purist. If it’s not indie, they suggest, it’s a “lower” form of entertainment. Did you enjoy yesterday’s Black Ops 2 trailer? Did you think it looked like big, loud, dumb fun? Do you dream of riding a robo-horse into the sunset and then blowing up the sun? Well then, you’re clearly a moron. You don’t “get” smart games, and works of real substance are lost on you. Go back to playing Madden and drinking beer from cans, you disgusting pig mongrel. It’s an amazing shame, too. With a small but vocal contingent of indie fans like that, is it any wonder so many potential players write the “scene” off as pretentious?

Ultimately, then, “indie” – once a term that stood for freedom of expression and unbridled experimental spirit – has now become a ponderous yoke. In many ways, it limits developers and players alike just as much as labels like “triple-A,” “first-person shooter,” and “Zynga employee.” And yet, all of those designations (yes, even the last one) hold an incredibly small amount of water. I mean, what’s Reset? Is it indie? Triple-A? It’s also first-person, but certainly not a shooter. And it uses the term “co-op,” even though it’s strictly single-player. So then, what could we possibly call it?

A game. That’s the answer. Or hell, we can just call it Reset. And if it ends up being an engaging, enjoyable experience, then I’ll say it’s succeeded, regardless of which expectations it does and doesn’t manage to live up to. So yeah, EA’s tossing around the term “indie,” but who really cares, so long as the games themselves are worth your time and money? Intention and execution speak volumes. Words like “indie,” meanwhile, are just that: words.

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  1. Patches the Hyena says:

    “Ultimately, then, “indie” – snip – has now become a ponderous yolk.”

    It’s an egg? :O

    I agree that indie has become a largely meaningless word which now mostly tends to increase gamers’ prejudice.

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      jezcentral says:

      I don’t see the diference between this and “Indie” music. It used to describe the unsigned bands, but became the kind of music they made, whether it was unsigned bands or stadium-selling-out types who still used guitars.

      EDIT: Ninja-ed by tea_fuelled_fortan_machine, RF, scatterbrainless……

      • Mad Hamish says:

        Yeah you could have replaced games with music and this article could have been in NME 15 years ago. I’m still bewildered that adults still long to be part of “scenes” and all that rubbish. These are the kind of things you are supposed to grow out of in your early 20s. Are people really still that desperate to belong? Just make/play the fucking games already.

        • PopeJamal says:

          I think most of the people who still really care about this nonsense and invest energy in “making it mean something” ARE, in fact, in their early twenties, either physically or mentally. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is what it is. It’s a non-issue to me. They could describe themselves as “quantum”, reductionist, or postmodern for all I care. Politics aside, my primary criteria are cost and “Did I enjoy it.”.

        • Shuck says:

          But you could also just as easily compare it to discussion of “indie” films (as opposed to Hollywood-backed movies), where it’s not about belonging to one arbitrary “scene” or another but radical differences in funding and production methods. Products that would never get “green lit” by the studios/publishers are made with budgets a tiny, tiny fraction the size of a studio/publisher-backed product. Other resources available to the creators and the development hazards are quite different as well. So there are qualitative differences in how and what gets made and how the audience needs to contextualize them when evaluating and supporting the products.

          (And Valve, as one of the industry’s largest publishers is, by no definition, an “indie” developer.)

      • Consumatopia says:

        I don’t think it’s such a stretch to use indie to refer both to independence from large publishers and opposition to mainstream aesthetic or taste. They typically go hand-in-hand–the large publishers are one mechanism (among many) that enforces mainstream taste–people who want to go outside mainstream tastes will often (not always) have to go outside large publishers.

        It’s not surprising that there isn’t one simple, all-encompassing way to describe everything that’s Indie, because indie-ness is defined by opposition to the mainstream, but there is no simple way to define the mainstream. Mainstream means different things, at different times, to different people. That doesn’t mean that either Indie or Mainstream are useless terms.

        • Consumatopia says:

          Also, if you eliminate the term “indie” from our lexicon, then someone like Blow, who not only has unorthodox ideas about gaming but also holds most of the gaming industry in contempt, would just coin a new word to define themselves. “Indie” isn’t so much about what you are, as what you are not.

    • Dozer says:

      The X-Plane flight simulator’s modding API has a bunch of datarefs with names like “yolk_pitch_ratio” and “yolk_roll_ratio”. (Along with yoke_pitch_ratio etc – the eggy references are kept just to stop old code from breaking.) Perhaps we need to see more eggs in games. Is there a Kickstarter for… hang on… I have been preempted. http://www.codemasters.com/uk/dizzy/mobile/

    • Lemming says:

      Sorry to thread jack, but I think people thinking of purchasing this should be aware. On the steamstore page for the bundle it denotes:

      “3rd-party DRM: One or more products in this package may use the 3rd party DRM EA Access.”

    • Bosola says:

      @PatchesTheHyena – no, ‘yolk’ means ‘shackle’ or ‘constraint’. The term ‘egg yolk’ is derived from that older meaning.

  2. kimadactyl says:

    Great article. Reminds me of my time running a record distro – all gets a bit more “obscurer than thou” and in 10 years time we’ll have hipsters playing CoD “ironically”.

    Pop culture vs “high” culture wars all over again :)

    • MattM says:

      Crap. I think I did play COD4 ironically. It well after CODBLOPS came out and I wanted to see for myself just how bad the game was. For double hipster points let me say this, their old stuff was better. COD1 was actually fun and seemed to contain more gameplay than 4.

      • misterdoo01 says:

        Nobody ever thought COD4 was a bad game, even when hating Call of Duty became the hip thing to do. Even people who hate COD will admit COD4 was a great game the majority of the time.

        • aerozol says:

          COD 4 was a great game. Maybe you had the hipster blinds on.
          “I liked their older stuff before they got so big”, eh?

  3. RetroVortex says:

    Lets take indie back!

    Actually, they can keep indie, I’m going to make up my own word for us bedroom coders and wannabes!

    Hmm…

    Bedwan

    Devbed

    Bedev

    Indolds

    Oldind

    Oldev

    Hmmm….This making up word thing is harder than I thought….

    • GameCat says:

      These words are so badass. They sound like some forgotten Nordic gods. Especially “Oldind”.
      I’m not gonna use word “indie” anymore.

      -Who are you?
      -I’m Indie games developer.
      -Oh. Cool. Really.

      VS

      -Whou are you?
      -I’m OLDIND, an ancient master of gamescraft!
      -Oh, that’s AWESOME!

      • RetroVortex says:

        Now thats a crazy idea for a videogame.

        Playing as Norse God of Independant Development, Bedev, you must guide your ragtag crew of demi-gods to creating a game to rival the efforts of other mythological game development deities!
        Failure will result in further outcastedry and no invites to the totally cool party the Elder Gods are throwing next season.

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          Jerricho says:

          You can’t call them Elder Gods though unless you license it from Zenimax

          • RetroVortex says:

            Alright.

            Older Gods it is then! XD

            EDIT:

            Or Ülder Gods! XD

            (I’d have double cover too. Ülder appears to be a surname, AND it counts as parody since its a pun! XD)

          • frightlever says:

            I’m pretty sure Elder Gods: Scrolls of Oblivion, would be an acceptable name which wouldn’t get you into trouble.

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            Drayk says:

            Am I the only one who think that a game called: ‘The Older Gods’ would sound amazing.

            And we should get Neil Gaiman to write the story and Jerry Goldsmith to do the music !

          • Fumarole says:

            Scroll Gods.

    • lijenstina says:

      Future sellouts ?

      I kid :)

    • Net_Bastard says:

      Devkid?

      Slapper? (because they slap whatever coding skills they know into a game)

      Trashdev?

    • Geen says:

      God fucking dammit EA.

  4. DeanLearner says:

    As a part time indie developer, being indie means the following…

    Don’t shave
    Post to screenshotsaturday
    Have twitter conversations with other indie developers
    Eventually be on steam

    I’ve got 1 of 4 so far. But again, I am part time.

    • RetroVortex says:

      Thats a pretty nice beard you have there!

      Shame is ssssomething bad were to happen to it… ;p

      • DeanLearner says:

        Thanks RV, this bad boy takes hours of grooming, something I’m not prepared to not do.

    • cliffski says:

      whoooahhhh there.
      There are a ton of really good indie game developers who have not caught steams eye yet. As I recall, vic davis of cryptic comet is one such example.

      • DeanLearner says:

        (just to be clear it was very tongue in cheek!)

      • frightlever says:

        Does Vic Davis WANT on Steam? Can’t see why he couldn’t get on if he wanted to. If that was the case then I’d sign that petition.

        I seem to recall that early Spiderweb games were rejected by Steam (citation needed – JV may just not have wanted to give up control at that time), and some Soldak titles too.

        • Randomer says:

          Vic applied to Steam at one point last year (for Solium Infernum and/or Armageddon Empires). They turned him down. Shortly thereafter he had a “Never on Steam Sale”.

    • lijenstina says:

      Using of the excuse – “It’s not a bug. It’s a non-intended feature.”

  5. The Godzilla Hunter says:

    When people misuse words until they become terribly twisted into a meaning that is not what the actually meaning is, I literally want to kill them.

    • Gaytard Fondue says:

      Indie meant independent developer for at least 30 billion years. And all these studios are independent. Yes, Obsidian is indie too.

      • Lukasz says:

        So is Valve

        • Shuck says:

          The traditional definition of an “independent game” is one developed without the backing of a publisher. How is anything produced by Valve “independent”? They’re not only a publisher, they are in fact one of the largest.

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      Malibu Stacey says:

      You mean figuratively.

  6. 2Zak says:

    Look ma, the videogames scene is like music’s!

  7. tea_fuelled_fortan_machine says:

    Is this really surprising? Think about what happened with ‘”indie” music and how that became the massive bloated turd that gave us coldplay.

    • reticulate says:

      I think you’ll find Coldplay are a product of 90’s British post rock, drawing on such things as Radiohead et al. They were never what you’d call Indie or inspired by it.

      • Groove says:

        The important thing is that Coldplay are horendous, that’s what we need to focus on.

        It doesn’t matter what other musical label you may want to apply to them, they will always be BAD music.

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      Muffalopadus says:

      …but I like Coldplay… =(

      • Groove says:

        No. No you don’t.

        No-one likes Coldplay, it’s just them buying their own records, which even they themselves don’t like. A world in which people like Coldplay makes no sense, and I refuse to take part in it.

      • Skabooga says:

        By all accounts I shouldn’t like Coldplay, but for whatever reason, I do, and, well, I y’am what I y’am.

    • Rhin says:

      I can’t tell if it’s a normal day and someone thinks their taste in music matters, or it’s an extension of the ironic hipster theme introduced in the article.

      Please specify. This bothers me.

  8. Robert Yang says:

    No one agrees on what art “is” definitively, but the word isn’t meaningless. It’s the opposite of meaningless; it has so many meanings we can’t agree on settling for just one. Again, I think most people would agree that Halo and Madden are not indie. That’s something.

    When the word “indie” loses meaning, utility, and currency, then it will naturally fall out of use. Until then, it’s still quite a “good” and important word, even if it’s vague.

    Also: don’t let EA co-opt a word. Fight back.

    • MattM says:

      Indie gaming is a real thing. Some people misuse the word or overuse it. There are also games that aren’t easily categorized as indie or AAA, but you wouldn’t say that yellow and green are meaningless words just because there are shades in between the two that are hard to categorize as one or the other.

    • randomnine says:

      This. “Indie” may be a loose word, but it says enough about shared values that it’s still useful.

      If EA get to co-opt it without a backlash, it will lose meaning.

      • randomnine says:

        I got angry enough at this to respond at length.

        “INDIE” IS NOT A FOUR LETTER WORD

        In short: cut through all the BS and the way we actually use “indie” has nothing to do with “independent”. In films, games, comics, art, books and elsewhere, we use it to refer to anti-establishment culture. Stuff that’s disruptive, weird, and new; stuff that a VP at Electronic Arts would laugh at in a pitch meeting.

        If the term gets taken over by the gaming establishment like this, as it has been in music, us fans of counter-cultural gaming experiences risk being splintered into dozens of genre-specific subcultures with no unifying banner under which to rally. That would be an extremely sad day for the medium.

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          Muffalopadus says:

          I have to say, this blog thing post makes more sense than this other RPS news post thing.

          I think at the root of this article though, is how silly it is that EA is trying to cash in on the “indie” scene, not that RPS is defining what “indie” actually is.

    • fearian says:

      Indie has always held meaning to a particular ‘style’ rather than being a classification of developers. I’m not sure I want the word Indie ‘back’.

      I’d much rather use words that are unambiguous and harder to co-opt; For example, Double Fine’s adventure game is an Independent title, whether it’s indie or not. Blendo Games is a Microstudio with a small staff count making Independent games.

      More often indie is used as a genre, but that’s where it is most vauge… Ditch it!

  9. RF says:

    So the same as indie music, then?

    • Secundus says:

      I think this is a pretty accurate assessment. not independent bands that are trying new things, but the shitty stagnant bands that self-indentify as “indie” so teens will know that they are ripping off neon indian or the kooks or something.

      actually good media is always going to be good media regardless of what it is labelled.

  10. qptain Nemo says:

    Yeah, I agree, let’s dismiss everything that hasn’t delivered the desired level of quality and consistency yet after the first 10 seconds no matter how important and positive its purpose is!

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    AmateurScience says:

    The dog? You were named after the dog?!?

  12. Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

    Good article and it’s all worth thinking about, but terms do become diffuse after being used for a while. It’s not an example I’m dreadfully up on but, uh, take ‘dubstep’. That used to have a fairly specific meaning ten years back or whatever, but it’s been popularised, taken in different ways and now the only thing you can be sure of in something called ‘dubstep’ is ‘wub wub wub’.

    Words that describe stuff like this often become fairly vague for exactly this reason – they find themselves having to cover a whole load of stuff. I mean, it’s a bit like the ‘what is art?’ question. It’s pretty damn hard to think of an definition that isn’t more or less ‘things in an art gallery/record store/whatever’ that doesn’t exclude stuff we’d clearly consider ‘art’. I reckon the best answer to ‘what is art?’ is ‘it’s a poorly defined word that can’t define as much as we usually think it defines’ – what we get out of art depends on discussing it and examining it, it’s not bound up in those three letters.

    So no, we can’t use a single word – ‘indie’ – to do a load of our thinking about a game for us (“Oh, it’s indie, I know exactly what that will entail”), and that’s why this article’s great – instead of just saying ‘indie’, we have to actually think – who made it, what is it, what does it do, what’s the thinking behind it, do I actually like it – rather than just seeing a word and hoping we don’t have to do any more contemplating.

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    The Sombrero Kid says:

    I care about the are games art argument in the way most people seem to care about the are games indie argument and i don’t care about the are games indie argument in the same way most people are tired of the are games art argument.

    Who cares if it’s indie for me it’s is it good and have the developers/publishers betrayed my trust?

  14. Michael Hoss says:

    Hm. I noticed that earlier today. And I actually do not think that the whole Indie Bundle is not indie. Actually, it is. The thing is: Most of these games were nearly completed when the indie-studios got an offer for a publishing deal with Electronic Arts. Still these games were (or still are) indiegames. Just with a publisher supporting them. This doesn’t exclude each other if you know what I mean. There are a lot more examples.

    Germany for example. Here the publisher HeadUp Games throws a lot of well known indiegames (like Super Meat Boy, Terraria and all these things) in a retail box on the market. Still, these are indiegames…

    • TNG says:

      Hear, hear.
      It seems that people are confusing development with publishing. Games developed by independent studios that got a publishing deal from a big firm; they remained independent and maintained an hold on their IP, just needed a partner to get their (awesome) games out there and reach a larger market. They probably would have preferred to self publish (like for example hothead games did with their other titles) but didn’t. It is still an original IP developed by an independent video game developer so…

      There are plenty of reasons to be mad at big companies in general, EA in particular, but the fact that they’ve created a platform to help out independent studios while allowing them to maintain their independence and market them as such isn’t probably one of them.

      • Michael Hoss says:

        That’s what I mean. But in the end it’s a haters gonna hate thing. Most people get game-development and publishing and game journalism and all this stuff so infuckingcredible wrong. Sad world.

  15. TheWhippetLord says:

    Definitely the last film. The Crystal Skull ruined the positive connotations of ‘Indy’ for me forever.

  16. Hoaxfish says:

    Some questions… EA still has games on Steam? EA didn’t do this on Origin?

    • Brun says:

      Steam is the de facto delivery platform for indie games and/or bundles. It’s another layer of this PR onion.

      Also, EA’s primary dispute with Steam involved having to pay Valve fees to deliver DLC – as Steam considers DLC separate purchases (as though they were games themselves), they would incur the sales overhead just like full games. EA contended that DLC should be considered patches, and therefore should not incur fees.

  17. scatterbrainless says:

    It’s so cliche to say that “indie” has become a cliche. Didn’t the same thing happen to in music 8 years ago? And “punk”. I just mean this happens to all subcultures that perpetuate themselves long enough, they stop generating tropes and start adhering to them. We should just ditch “indie” and make-up a new game genre for the development stratgies we like, lik…. “Gametopian”. Gametopian developers are the only ones whose games I play anymore.

    • Kohlrabi says:

      I wanted to say the same about the ‘indie’ notion concerning music. Once indie music was really music produced independently. Some people started to associated the music style with the production of this music, and such “indie” was later applied to the music style of some more popular independent bands. And later big labels started publishing artists which sound was reminiscent of those popular independent bands, and again their style was coined “indie”.

      As such, the term was abused from describing about the production itself to the style. The same is happening now. What previously were independent developed games now describes a certain style of game which defies common triple-AAA design principles.

      It simply does not apply to the production methods anymore, but to a certain style of presentation, as has happened to “indie” in music, too.

  18. rustybroomhandle says:

    So if ‘indie’ is a bad word, and ‘EA’ is most certainly a bad word(s), then add people who balk at the word ‘bundle’ – this EA Indie Bundle is utter filth.

  19. Maldomel says:

    That last paragraph represents why I enjoy reading RPS. Who cares about words anyway? The true meaning isn’t even lost, it’s just that people are lazily using words to define whole chunks of the industry in one go. Thus, at some point no ones knows what it really meant in the first place excepts for people who are willing to learn that meaning, or people who already knew it for a long time.

    But it’s not entirely bad. This happens with many terms and words. It is but an evolution of the language that every new generations twist around to make and invent a sense to fit and express the thoughts they have in minds.

  20. icupnimpn2 says:

    There’s still worth in talking about differences between titles funded through the traditional publisher pathway and those made by small teams working on smaller budgets. While I don’t turn my nose up at AAA games, I don’t expect to see an indie CoDBlOps any more than I expect to see the next official Spider-Man movie come from a team of five people with handheld cameras. Those five people might make something interesting, but it won’t be a Hollywood blockbuster. Doesn’t mean it can’t be successful, just that it follows a different workflow, and yes, ethos than a really large, well funded, coordinated production.

    Differences in team sizes, corporate environment, and cash reserves to tend to foster differences in what sorts of games are produced. Having less money for production may mean having to more carefully choose the scope and design of a project. Indie developers may have to make more trade-offs, basically, to stand out. Keep graphics 2d and go with a striking design, for example, instead of making everything 3d and as realistic as possible.

    But Indie ethos? That was pretty much an add-on, I think, to the original concept and not vice versa. If you want to be proud that you’re small and under your own direction, that’s great. But as there’s no official indie organization that speaks for everyone, not everyone has to or is going to agree with or sign on to your party line.

    So what can we do to develop a more useful lexicon? Can we coin a word for games that are indie in the nature of their funding and development relative to traditional publisher-funded titles? Can we coin a separate word for titles that are developed in an indie spirit of experimentation and deliberate separation from the mainstream? Or to peel out any of the other over-stuffed definitions of the word “indie?”

    • ReV_VAdAUL says:

      “So what can we do to develop a more useful lexicon?”

      This is an exceptionally good question and one games journalists really need to consider carefully. It is not enough to shrug and give up and say words are meaningless now. Games journalists, as with all journalists, have a job to investigate, interpret and explain the issue or medium they report upon.

      Yes the meaning of indie is being diluted, so journalists need to start considering and creating more specific and worthwhile terms so they can aid everyone else in interpreting the industry.

    • Secundus says:

      how about we just think about games on their merits instead of putting them into scenes or trends or labels

      • ReV_VAdAUL says:

        There are too many games to easily do that, putting games into trends and categories is necessary to understand gaming more generally.

        No game is developed in a vacuum, the successes and failures of other games, economic circumstance and the current tastes / desires of gamers all factor into what games are made and how they’re made.

        Would we be getting Torchlight 1&2, Grim Dawn, Path of Exile etc if Diablo 3 wasn’t coming out for instance?

      • icupnimpn2 says:

        It is possible to separate the merits of the game from the context of the gaming industry. But that really limits the information and discussion available. Labels and terms are useful for understanding context and for making comparisons. We’re speaking in the comments of a site here that talks about gaming, not just about games.

        Sticking to just the merits of a game, speaking about a game entirely in isolation… You miss information about a game that could influence a purchase or how players allocate your time. Games from smaller developers often can’t compete in terms of 3d effects, orchestral music, campaign length, and etc. Many times they’re fun, but they’re fun for what they are.

        I think that’s why we do mention that something is “indie” – it’s almost an apologist’s word. No, this game won’t compete with a $30 million title on some metrics, but it has rewarding points. Understanding something’s budget or development environment can help players to look past blemishes and find appreciation.

        How is context useful? One example… For me, I want to know if a game is a lift or a shameless clone of something else, like several of Zynga’s products. Evaluated on their own merits, these games are probably quite good, polished, etc. But then you miss that context that it is a rip-off and if you pay and play you end up supporting a development team that wasn’t the real innovator. Such concerns can, and I believe should, color appreciation of games beyond their merits taken in isolation.

        • Secundus says:

          “Sticking to just the merits of a game, speaking about a game entirely in isolation… You miss information about a game that could influence a purchase or how players allocate your time. Games from smaller developers often can’t compete in terms of 3d effects, orchestral music, campaign length, and etc. Many times they’re fun, but they’re fun for what they are.”

          all of the things you described sound like merits to me.

          • icupnimpn2 says:

            Then I fail to understand how evaluating merits can stand alone from examining trends or using labels. We’re supposed to evaluate games on their merits… and merits can be contextual and relative to other games, but we’re not supposed to use identifiers to classify or make relationships more obvious?

            What exactly do you have in mind and how do you imagine that a label-less world would look?

          • Secundus says:

            take a gander at most music sites like pitchfork. they don’t open their reviews with mentions of how alt the bands are, or how authentic it is, they just review the fucking music and if it is good its good.

            there’s a painful tendency in games journalism/culture to reduce every single game to a jumble of other videogames plus a stupid label like indie as a replacement for actually describing or criticising the game at hand.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      I completely agree. For me, “indie” never had these connotations of “indie-spirit”. For me, it simply means a small team, probably with a small budget, that is not controlled by a publisher. I am actually a bit surprised by the additional meaning of the word that is presented here, and that it seems to be broadly accepted.

      But anyway, I also agree with the article. Is there any reason to have such a label? Games can be made by large teams in a studio, or by a single developer in his bedroom. They can be published by a big publisher, or they can be offered for download on the developers homepage. These things are easily stated when they are not obvious anyway. Do we really need a special word for the lower end of this money-scale? One that will probably misunderstood anyway?

      • Chandos says:

        Same for me. Not even small budget perhaps, but a team that has full creative control over their project, as opposed to just pitching ideas to the CFO of a company. Creative independence is what it has always meant to me. I think all the other stuff comes from what people subjectively want it to be.

        • Hammurabi says:

          I have a tendency to reject such connotative meanings as well. If you are searching for Meaning and Importance in little words used to categorize the nature of a product’s funding and decision structure…well, frankly that’s pretty silly.

  21. nootpingu86 says:

    A lot of these games share an aesthetic — a retro element hybridized with newer technologies. The design approach consists of a naive misunderstanding of the games they’re paying homage to. Not necessarily a crime if the game is interesting unto itself, but it often rings hollow because of how contrived it is in attempting to be retro. The depth in these games becomes the victim of that process more often than not.

    It seems like that’s all of what the games that are commonly billed as indie actually do. Indie games get the visual thing right, in the case of something like Braid or Bastion. They often have soundtracks that bat way out of the league of the actual game. Okay, great! So, how about the actual game?

    • icupnimpn2 says:

      Any number of parties in any of these groups may be responsible for the lazy retro look now associated with indie games, but for different reasons. To make the game seem indie is a marketing reason and fairly cynical. Due to developer constraints is another reason – it is arguably an easier aesthetic to adopt than going with full realism or professional design. Many coders can ape it without outside graphical expertise. And of course there are the teams using the aesthetic because that’s what they honestly want their game to have, whether for reasons of homage or nostalgia or whathaveyou.

      I’m not completely fatigued by the retro aesthetic yet, but I have become sensitive to whether it *feels* right, honest, or appropriate for a game. This means it isn’t a selling point by any means. The BitTrip games did the aesthetic right, and it was appropriate because the gameplay of Beat, for example, played with our expectations for Pong. VVVVVV also did it right. The characters and graphics are so simple that they almost fade out of the way and let the player just respond to what is happening. And I am very forgiving of bedroom developers that choose a retro look because of their own limitations and desire to share their ideas with others.

      • nootpingu86 says:

        For as much as I rag on it as contrived, there are some games that do it very well. VVVVVV was a good example I agree. It’s a shame most of them are years old now, like La Mulana and Cave Story. Most recently I feel in love with how Jamestown looked. I really think that old SNK pixel art aesthetic still has plenty of vitality too.

        It’s really a matter of whether the game is effective or not at what it sets out to do. If you have a game with a confused purpose or one that deliberately places it as “sorta like this but different this way” I think that’s self-limiting. The ambivalence toward the influences seem to obscure the success of the imitation, if that makes any sense. It’s very clear a game like Geometry Wars sparked off a trend, and now every indie shooter needs to be psychedelic and have a scoring gimmick, and look vaguely Atari circa 1983. We got bit.trip, which was a mixed bag — actually nintendo had a series of games reminiscient of those on the GBA called Bit Generations, but more austere and conceptual instead of the garrish mania of something like Bit.trip runner. I enjoyed the intentions behind Bit Generations more as a result, but maybe not the games themselves.

        Compare all that that to something like Tempest 2000, which no one had actually seen at the time, but still married to very primitive technology — or any other arcade title, for that matter. It’s almost like technical limitations have a way of bringing out originality, while the “blank canvas” nature of today’s technology seems to scare most devs away from that type of conceptual riskiness. It has to be safe, clearly typified, a game with recognizable design and aesthetic tropes etc.

  22. phenom_x8 says:

    Yay, at last EA analyst see very potential marketing plan with this ‘indie’ word. Its sure taking them very long time to realise then.
    Just need to wait they’re abusing the kickstarter word after this!

  23. MOKKA says:

    I think this Cartoon could be of relevance to this debate:

    http://www.homestarrunner.com/sbemail203.html

  24. Drake Sigar says:

    The term has fractured into several different meanings, sometimes people just associate it with a certain style. You’ve got people believing indie games are the last bastion standing against corporate America and should be supported regardless of quality (which makes EA’s bid all the more amusing) then there’s groups who dismiss all indie games as pretentious nonsense. The gaming audience has never been so diverse, and all these groups create one big clusterfuck.

  25. ReV_VAdAUL says:

    I think you need to be careful about condemning the concept of Indie for the fact EA has tried to co-opt it. It is the fact indie has positive conotations for a lot of people that is the reason why EA co-opted it. Images of people making games out of passion, not box ticking and pre-planning DLC two years in advance and so on. Regardless of whether people are right to view “indie” games this way it is clear that EA views “indie” as a positive way to offset the reality of them being a truly massive corporation.

    A similar scenario would be environmentalism. Some people work tirelessly for no profit to try and improve the environment and make the world a better place. Their goals as laudable and popular perceptions of them are positive so then corporations, often those responsible for damaging the environment, try to jump on the bandwagon and slap Eco- and sustainability on everything.

    That an SUV that now gets 7 MPG instead of 6 MPG is called the Sustainability Eco-Wagon Green Edition does not mean that the concepts of a cleaner and healthier environment are meaningless, it means there are competing meanings, some deep and amirable, some shallow and cynical and a whole lot somewhere in the middle.

  26. Velvetmeds says:

    So everyone was waiting for EA to do something with the indie word to start hating on it? That’s sad.

  27. f1x says:

    This is just a proof that anything that the crowd has any interest for, will be assimilated as a product in the end
    obviously the reason why EA does this and names it Indie bundle its because they know they will appeal to a certain market, but I’m not telling you anything new, I’m sorry that you lost 20 secs reading this, ok ok… here… have a muffin :)

  28. reticulate says:

    What Indie means to me is small team, low-cost titles that find benefit from the explosion in digital distribution.

    If that means a rugged, manly one man band or a baby-eating, soulless corporation doesn’t matter as much as if the game is, you know, good. Leave the elitism and semantics for those who give a toss. I’ll be happy playing games via Steam or Origin or XBLA or whatever.

    • RetroVortex says:

      I’d argue thats the true future of game development, (like many other businesses).

      Sure the big players are going to be around, but they will spend all their time fighting themselves and each other, and they won’t allow anyone to get big enough to even be a moderate threat, (Id bought by Bethesda, Bioware by EA ect.).
      And they may end up self-destructing like THQ or JoWood. The focus on tech and consoles makes game development, all-or-nothing affairs.

      The true growth potential, but still keeping the quality aspect of game design, is within small, but highly trained teams.
      (The technology and medias, have come back to the point that people can fairly easily develop something of comparable quality. So a new wave of “bedroom developers”, the dreamers, the hopefuls, are rising out of the depths of obsucrity to find platforms to suspend themselves from and get attention)

      Look at Doublefine.

      Its full of veterans. People who grew up with the industry and know it like the back of their hand. After the moderate failure of Brutal Legend, I think they realised that there wasn’t a place there for them. Publishers are too controlling and demanding in that regard. The ethos doesn’t mix.

      So they decided to make smaller budget titles out of their brainstormed ideas, and they have had great success in that.
      Probably more success then they have had in a long time.

      Market trends suggest that, at least on the pc, people like to buy cheap games, in bulk, digitally. A perfect market for the low budget independant developer, (though there are other motivations of course. I personally would want to be a game developer because I want to make my ideas come to life and entertain, but also wouldn’t mind being able to earn enough to keep myself stable. Working class background and all that, makes me realise how much more valuable happiness is to wealth)

      The demand for that quality is there. The kickstarter proved that.

      In the end of the day, consumers are willing to sample things if there is little risk in it.

      I remember back in the old console game I would buy a magazine monthly, to get those demos.

      This is sort of the same thing in a way. You pay a few quid for a little game, you like it, you invest in that developer in the future.

      • icupnimpn2 says:

        And there you’ve highlighted some of the stratification within groups sharing the “indie” label.

        There are the bedroom coders not doing it for money but rather because they have ideas they want to bring to life and share. These are the ones most responsible for the punk image of indie gaming. They form communities with each other and are not necessarily commercial. Creative control is important to them but is never a question, as they were always just doing what they wanted to do and making games is a past time, hobby, or artistic pursuit rather than a career or second job.

        There are the industry veterans jumping ship from larger houses to avoid dealing with traditional publishers and large corporations. While not exactly punk, they do carry some of a rebel image because they’re defying conventions of industry business as usual rather than necessarily making unconventional or better games. They may benefit from taking creative control, and they may have an honest desire to “do better” than they would have in a large company. But their intent is to make money as much as to entertain. They may never have made the switch to smaller companies unless the environment of digital download had come to make that more viable by cutting out some middlemen and overhead.

        And there are small developers with big dreams. These may be amateurs or hobbyists developing games in their spare time, hoping to have some financial success and grow larger. They are not necessarily innovators and aren’t in it for the art. They may be in it to learn their craft, but they don’t care about defying conventions or any of that nonsense unless by being perceived that way they feel they can improve their shot at success.

        Surely there are more groups, too, and individuals that split the difference between types.

  29. spann says:

    I read this while every so often glancing to the right, in order to make sure that RPS is still involved with Rezzed, the PC and Indie Games show.

  30. djim says:

    You know, i had this weird bad feeling when i was seeing all those indie bundles in steam especially for the past year, but i couldn’t point out why, as they were good deals.

    Thanks RPS for helping me figure out why.

  31. Premium User Badge

    RobF says:

    EA haven’t co-opted the word. They publish and distribute games via EA Partners, games often developed by indie studios. Who remain indie still. There’s no co-opting going on.

    So no, it’s not silly at all. It’s perfectly reasonable.

    If they put EA first party stuff in there *then* it’d be silly. But they haven’t.

    • Michael Hoss says:

      said the same thing a few posts above but no one really cares. People wanna see reality like they want it to be. Also please note: EA = worst evil of all times *sigh*

    • nootpingu86 says:

      That’s a bit of semantics, isn’t it? The word meant independent from corporate publishers when applied to music way back when. If you went through Sony/EMI/Universal or whoever, you weren’t indie anymore.

      I just think the word itself is bad and loaded up with nonsense that has nothing to do with the term’s original meaning, irrespective of the games themselves. We need a new one. Or we could go back to just calling them video games.

      • Premium User Badge

        RobF says:

        They’re indie games from indie studios. So yeah,call it semantics if you want but when the meaning of the word and the usage of the word are in perfect harmony, it’s a fuckton of fuss over fuck all.

        (And if you think indie music wasn’t tied at the hip to corporate overlords for distribution fairly often, I do not know what to think. Really.)

        • nootpingu86 says:

          That’s what the word actually meant. It was a constellation of terms to describe grassroots-derived and distributed, DIY music. Indie, being shorthand for independent ofc, was originally the descriptor of that, regardless of whether indie artists moved to major labels or not. The implication was that the profit motive came secondary to the creative ethos the music, whatever genres it may use, espoused.

          EA obviously thinks the games are marketable within the framework of their brand and business model, which does a great deal to dilute the creative content of all its games. They’re now EA games, and indie is a marketing term that refers to their aesthetics. Yet there are no discernible aesthetics that indie delinates. There’s an element of pretension to it too I guess, if you disagree about EA’s ‘creativity’.

        • nootpingu86 says:

          Don’t mark my comments as spam you craven hack.

  32. Cirno says:

    EA, dont touch indie with your dirty greedy paws!

  33. RizziSmoov says:

    “I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten about “indie” platformers with time-bending elements or similar puzzle elements”

    Developers please…

  34. EeryPetrol says:

    As long as most people see the irony in EA’s use of ‘indie’, the word really isn’t a ‘ponderous yolk’ at all. I mean, they’re using the connotation people have of indie, to effectively brand their product (in itself that’s a confirmation of the public strength the term indie has acquired). That’s just how advertising works.

    If the work of independent developers never grows beyond the current themes that are publically associated to them, it does not matter if the term indie commonly refers to independent development or the list of conflicting sentences by Nathan. At least not for the games themselves. And on the other hand, when developers relentlessly continue to boldly alter the fate of the indieverse, the term ‘indie’ will grow with them, or another name will surface.

  35. Suits says:

    sad thing is that it’s selling

    • Premium User Badge

      bsplines says:

      That probably has to do with the games in the bundle, not EA’s name and whether they are abusing the term indie or not.

  36. Winged Nazgul says:

    EA Indie Bundle – how oxymoronic.

  37. Lemming says:

    Ea using the ‘indie’ name in this case isn’t just a case of the word becoming something else, but a cynical attempt by EA to cash-in on a market.

    If they’d had the right attitude, they’d have a sub-company for these things like Fox Searchlight for indie movies.

  38. lijenstina says:

    What those hipster kids from EA will think next.

  39. Jason Moyer says:

    Indie isn’t hard to figure out once you realize that, like most everything else, it’s going to resist your lazy attempts at forcing things into binary definitions.

    What is EA’s involvement with these games? If the games are a.) made by companies that EA does not own and b.) developed without EA’s financial support and c.) properties that EA does not own then I would reason that EA’s involvement is purely an agreement to handle promotion and distribution. That’s still “indie” by any reasonable usage of the word.

  40. Colette Pixie says:

    I was going to say that even though it’s an EA bundle that shouldn’t even exist, that looked like a good deal… Unfortunately, the bundle doesn’t exist in France, and I can’t access the page without a proxy. I’m pretty sure it’s because Deathspank hasn’t been released in France, because of its lack of a French version (yes, apparently I don’t speak a word of English, and even the Loi Toubon is a poor excuse since games in English are released every day here and nobody cares). Oh, EA…

  41. Aaarrrggghhh says:

    And you actually require an Origin account to play two of the “indies” you bought from EA via Steam.
    Good job, EA. Nobody will ever notice what you are trying to do…

    • Premium User Badge

      jezcentral says:

      While I don’t deny that there is currently a custer-**** of sign-ins in PC gaming today, I don’t see what EA is doing any different from Steamworks, GFWL, etc, here.

      • neolith says:

        The problem is that they DON’T do anything differently. Steam has been there long before and so have several other ‘services’. That ecological niche has already been taken.

        • Premium User Badge

          jezcentral says:

          By taken, you mean already full? Clearly not.

          Or maybe you meant, as there are already competing DD services, no-one else has the right to organise their own digital downloads. Clearly not.

          Or is it just that because it is EA, they should FOAD? Is that really the best argument you can muster?

  42. mckertis says:

    “I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten about “indie” platformers ”

    Why not ? I’m intrigued…70 ? No, wait…76 ?

  43. mcwill says:

    It’s definitely become an adjective used to describe a style. I was explaining an outline RPG concept to a former colleague of mine who is still a mainstream gamedev, and he responded with “That’s indie as fuck!”

    edit: To clarify what I think *he* meant by it. I think by “Indie” he meant “not ever likely to be taken on by a mainstream gamedev studio or publisher”. In particular he expressed the opinion that just getting the death mechanic past most platform QA would be nearly impossible (I disagree, but then I was a Complicance Specialist in my previous life…) so I think he might have had something very specific in mind, namely “impossible to do in the mainstream”.

    • nootpingu86 says:

      Well, if we could confine it to shorthand for your definition we wouldn’t have the problem the article mentions. I think the term was dead on arrival in gaming, and we’ve gotta live with that. It had ceased to mean anything in music long ago.

  44. Premium User Badge

    Hypocee says:

    ‘Creator-owned’ works fine for me.

  45. Shooop says:

    “Indie” already had no real meaning before this happened. It was already so misused by the general public it’s become a synonym for “pretentious”.

    This is just another attempt to cash in on the name because some people are in love with the label itself. I almost hope it succeeds so we can put the word out of its misery and go back to calling unique, interesting games unique, interesting games.

  46. aliksy says:

    If EA is publishing it, it’s not indie anymore.

  47. Baresark says:

    Great article. It’s super relevant these days to. Indie games are everywhere, and a lot of them are junk. The ones everyone knows of are typically the good ones. For every one good one game, there are ten bad ones though. Games that are just stealing from other games. And I think the whole pixel art thing is overdone at this point. As time goes on though, you see games growing in scope, some that look truly fantastic and are super polished but are $10 (Nexuiz, haven’t played it, but looks great).

  48. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    Just wait until EA has a subsidiary that is kind of secret and releases indie games under that label.

  49. reggiep says:

    Yeah, I get it. ‘Indie’ has been diluted. Once upon a time ‘organic’ was a label on food that meant something (in the US). Now there are organic Lays potato chips. The FDA actually laxed the rules for organic food during W’s term, leading to a flood of ‘organic’ food products that are actually industrial foods. It was based on lobbying pressure from corporations who didn’t like being outsold by independent farms and the like.

    Point is, corporations ruin everything. Something, like indie gaming, can only be cool and hip for a very short period before corporations and uncreative types glom on and destroy it. We have only ourselves to blame. We created this climate with this “greed is good” mentality. Garbage in. Garbage out.

    • soldant says:

      Except a corporation wasn’t responsible for this, rather it’s a bunch of people making games that aren’t particularly good cashing in on the ‘indie’ label because it’s cool to hate mainstream and love shadow platformers with a pointlessly cryptic story.

      EA trying to cash in hasn’t caused this, the indie “scene” is an absolute mess, particularly now that Kickstarter has picked up steam and everyone’s looking to cash in.